Once the weather turns cool in Tokyo, a sweet perfume fills its streets. It escapes from the parks and enclosed gardens and for a few weeks it becomes a familiar presence in a city better known for its skyscrapers, electronics and cuisine than for flowers. The tiny blossoms that give Tokyo its aroma are easy to miss, but the perfume is so vivid that osmanthus is sometimes called “a 10-mile fragrance” tree. In Japanese, it’s known as kinmokusei, and in English it may be referred to as a “fragrant” or “Chinese” olive, hinting at the plant’s origins, but by any name, the aroma of ripe apricots, jasmine petals and leather is irresistible.
Perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena, enchanted by osmanthus, chose to pair it with a tea note in his fragrance for Hermès, Osmanthe Yunnan (£175 for 100ml EDT). Although Ellena was inspired by a visit to the Forbidden City in Beijing, his creation captures my memories of Tokyo in autumn. Every element in the perfume is delicately rendered, from the fruity notes that recall the softness of peach skin to the transparent white blossoms soaked in tea. The marriage of tea and osmanthus is a classical one, because both ingredients play up each other’s facets of fruits, woods, sweetness and bitterness. Osmanthe Yunnan is a happy perfume and, whenever I put it on, I feel as if I’ve stepped into a pool of sunlight.
Another radiant fragrance is Nuit de Cellophane (£135 for 100ml EDP) by Serge Lutens, a perfume that uses osmanthus to turn up the volume of jasmine. These floral notes are complementary, although their characters are very different. Osmanthus is tender and languid, while jasmine is vivacious and dramatic. Yet, they share a fruity touch, and blending them creates a dazzling effect. Nuit de Cellophane amplifies the sweetness of osmanthus and jasmine by layering the floral notes with peach, apricot and musk.
In Japan osmanthus blossoms are often used in cakes and jams, while in China they are steamed with pears and rock sugar for a fragrant dessert. The affinity of osmanthus with gourmand accords can also be explored in perfumery, and one of the most interesting examples is La Belle Hélène (£225 for 75ml EDP) by MDCI. The premise behind this fragrance is a classical French dessert, Poire Belle-Hélène, which features poached pears served with a chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream; in the MDCI version, the pear is laced with osmanthus and candied violet. Even after the other blossoms fade, the osmanthus lingers deliciously.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.